Awhile ago, I wrote a post about how one of the great things about How I Met Your Mother is that it lets its characters grow and change. The “group of twenty-somethings hang out in the city” premise is only sustainable for so long, and you’re eventually going to have to either let your characters spiral wildly out of flanderized control (hey there, Friends!), or confront the severe arrested development that keeps these people in a bar and co-dependently in each others’ lives for long after everyone else has moved on to – well, to being a grown-up.
And the thing is, for most of its run – if we’re being really specific, until 8:54 tonight – HIMYM has been really good about doing the second. We can joke all we want about the CBS zombie model of television production, but the fact is that the reason this show has had such staying power is that its core characters felt, by and large, like real people. And so I thought the wildly ambitious real-time ninth season was a fantastic success, because it allowed the fruits of all that character development to linger. We got to see Lily and Marshall hash out some of the kinks in their marriage to a point where it felt like they could have a realistically cooperative relationship going forward. We got to see Barney and Robin grow into a place where it felt realistic that they could have an adult relationship at all. (And for the record – I’m largely indifferent on whether Barney and Robin made a good couple. I think that their “cute couple quirks” were more often than not forced and were generally checkmarks on a list as opposed to organically found within the characters – BUT I do think it was a great device to explore and overcome the fear and immaturity of both characters in terms of intimacy and adulthood. So, to sum up: good way to deal with the characters, if not, perhaps, totally faithful to them.) And we got to see Ted FINALLY overcome his nine year hang ups – we got to see him finally become the man the mother deserved.
And for 54 minutes of the finale, HIMYM continued with that same faithfulness to its characters and to their development. Honestly, I was on board with not letting the meeting with the mother be the end-all happily ever after – yes, please, show me Marshall with a soul-punching corporate job, show Robin and Barney’s perfectly-realistic-and-seriously-who-didn’t-see-this-coming-and-were-you-even-watching-the-same-show-as-the-rest-of-us marital problems. Did divorcing them kind of cheapen the entire ninth season? Well sure, but only if you think the point of the ninth season was to show how Robin and Barney got together. That’s what it was about – the point of it was to show them trying to overcome their fears and anxieties to become the people they thought they should be and everyone else thought they should be, and if it turned out that that’s not who they were – I’m really fine with that.
And those 54 minutes were funny and touching and emotionally manipulative in the best sense of the words. Starting the episode in 2005 was a brilliant way of bringing the show back to its roots, and then using that callback to the beginning to set up Ted seeing Tracy across a crowded room just like he saw Robin all those years ago – well, geez, HIMYM, I loved the mother already, you didn’t have to work that hard. The infinite high fives failing brilliantly as we all knew it would, the return of the delightfully uncool hanging chad, the revelation that Barney has a moat guy (obviously). Hell, they managed to squeeze one last NEW running gag into the last hour of the show with Marshall’s increasingly strained attempts to be less than violently hateful towards his miserable gig.
Of course the mother fit perfectly into the group. And of course the successful career woman who didn’t want children was vilified.
Yeah. We can’t put it off any longer. The HIMYM series finale had a severe, intense, earthquakingly offensive Robin problem.
I will totally buy that she traveled all over the world after her wedding, and I will totally buy that this put a strain on her marriage, and I’ll even buy that the marriage fell apart after three years. (If it turned out that the woman Barney actually needed to ground him was his child – well, I’m not going to pretend “guy has a daughter and immediately begins respecting women” is anything but the hoariest of cliches, but Neil Patrick Harris did everything he was capable of to sell that moment, and he is capable of quite a lot.) But when Robin tearfully told Lily that Ted was the guy she should have ended up with, was I totally wrong in not taking that seriously? I mean, obviously, but it really seemed to me more like she was lonely and stressed and had just seen Ted’s super-successful relationship in the face of her super-failed one, and maybe she was just doing what we all do when every other way our lives could have gone seems better than the one it did.
Because this was a brilliant ending. 9 years ago. It was a brilliant ending for the Robin who still had dogs (how wild was it to see that in the final scene?), for the Ted who still took the blue french horn seriously as opposed to representative of an immature fantasy of romance, and for the idea of a relationship which could change Robin into Ted’s perfect girl, the one who wanted kids and domesticity and repeated instruction on the correct usage of the word “literally.” And the thing is, the characters were like that at the end of the first season – maybe even the end of the second – but I don’t buy that the Ted who went through so much pain to grow into the guy who no longer loved Robin would be the one who would still show up at her window holding a blue french horn.
No, this ending was insulting. It was insulting to the mother, who was delightful and perfect and totally worth nine years of waiting and was then disposed of in a single throwaway hospital bed – I don’t know if they didn’t plan on spending so much time developing her or if they just ran out of time in this episode, but if they had to kill her (and they didn’t), she deserved better than and-now-it’s-7-years-later-and-I’m-over-her-okay-bye. It was insulting to Robin, who had questioned, deeply and agonizingly, whether or not she wanted kids and a husband, and concluded that she didn’t but that her life was still meaningful and rewarding. It was insulting to Ted, who had spent so much time becoming the perfect man for the mother, which involved a corresponding transformation into someone who was no longer the perfect man for Robin.
And it was insulting to the audience. Look, How I Met Your Mother was literally never about the mother. They chopped that head off at the end of the first episode when it turned out that the great girl Ted had been pining after for 22 minutes was Aunt Robin – clearly we were in for something much different, and much more interesting, than a simple race to the finish. But HIMYM was always more about the journey, about seeing where these characters went and what they became, and if that happened to wind up on a platform in Farhampton – well, great, but anyone who was watching week-to-week to get there was really frustrated, really quick. And so the fact that, in the end, this show gave conclusions to its characters that were faithful to who they were in 2005 – it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what the show was about.
I get it, okay? You write the perfect ending scene for the characters as they are at the beginning of your story and by the end of it you’re so addled by nostalgia and stress about your pending unemployment that it doesn’t seem like there’s another way for the story to end (see also: JK Rowling and the Case of the Totally Superfluous Epilogue). But the great thing about HIMYM was always that the characters were not who they were at the beginning of the story, that they were allowed to grow and change in ways that were compelling and dynamic and meaningful. So while I’m not going to suggest that this ending ruined the entire show, because that would be insane, I do think it’s a shame that such a great run ended with a celebration of what has been, as opposed to what it is now. The last episode was faithful to the first – the problem was that it had to ignore a whole lot of great in-between in order to do that.